Over the years I have written several "book" or "booklets" and many, many, many newsletter and bulletin articles. Because the book market seeks writings to meet specific needs at specific times, my material has never been accepted. I have a tendency to write what is on my mind and so I am left with self publishing. So, with the encouragement from my wife and others, I am beginning this blog in order to put my "ramblings" "out there"! I hope you enjoy!
Please note that while my intentions are to use good grammar, because of the way in which some of the material presented here is presented (orally) the grammar and syntax might not always be the best English. Also note that good theology is not always presented in the best English so there may be times when the proper grammar rules are purposely broken.
Sunday, September 13, 2015
Small, But Powerful - September 13, 2015 - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19) - Text: James 3:1-12
This week we pick up where we left off from last week. Last week we were reminded that we are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, faith given by God, so that we might respond by doing the good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do and because they are motivated in us, worked in and through us by the Holy Spirit and give glory to God, they are good works indeed. This morning we move forward as James reminds us of our responsibility as Christians, especially to be careful of what we say because what we say shows what is in our hearts and because God will hold us accountable for our speech, as well as our actions.
James begins by giving us instructions in Christian responsibility, especially in being responsible for our speaking, our teaching. He says, “1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (v. 1-5a).
Although James is not necessarily speaking of teachers meaning pastors or preachers of the Word being held to a higher standard, indeed he is speaking to all who teach others of the Word of God. Why this higher standard for teachers? Because teachers are not simply accountable for themselves, which they are, but they are also accountable for the ones they teach. If you ever wonder why I take so much time in sermon preparation it is because I know that I will be held accountable before God, not only for myself, what I believe, but also for what I teach. Have you ever wondered why I am so adamant about what I preach and teach? It is because I know that God will hold me accountable for what is taught and believed by you the hearer.
And yet, James is not simply speaking to those who preach and those who teach, indeed, he is speaking to us all as Christians. As Christians, especially as those of us who claim to be Christians, we must learn to “bridle,” to control our tongue. How often do we see on the evening news how a bad situation becomes worse when tempers flair and angry words come spewing out of one’s mouth? How often in our own lives do we make bad situations worse by failing to stop and think before speaking? As I have told my children and I am sure you have all heard, remember to stop and count to ten, yet we fail to stop and what spews from our mouth are not helpful but hurtful words and once the words leave our mouth there is no taking them back. The writer of the Proverbs gives us a better way when he says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). James is simply reminding us that what needs controlling the most in our lives is our tongue.
Continuing on in our text James reminds us of the power of the tongue and how great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! We pick up at verse six, “6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (v. 5b-12).
James’ words remind me of the old contemporary “camp fire” song, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going . . .” Indeed, a spark, a small fire can grow into a great blaze. Likewise a small word can grow into a great conflict. We might imagine that the tongue is the embodiment of evil. Actually, it is not the tongue itself which is evil, that would be like saying that dynamite, in and of itself is evil. Dynamite cannot set itself off. Or today we might suggest that guns in and of themselves are evil, even though guns cannot shoot themselves. The uncontrolled tongue is evil. The uncontrolled tongue gets the one who uses it in trouble and, because we do not live in a vacuum, it gets others in trouble as well.
Perhaps you have heard me say it before, we do not live in a vacuum. What we think, what we say, what we do, draws an equal and opposite reaction. My right to extend my fist may end at where your nose begins, but that still does not give me the right to extend my fist to that point. The very action of my exercise of my right will cause an equal and opposite reaction from you, and then as they say all hell breaks loose, the fires of Gehenna (hell) erupt. The uncontrolled tongue is powerful indeed.
Unfortunately we cannot tame ourselves, we need God’s help. James reminds us that our tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We need taming, for we do curse, we do sin. As you have heard me say in Bible Class many times, if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the culture, read the comics and I cannot tell you how many comic writers understand the difficulty with the tongue. How many comic panels have the character speak some word he or she did not wish to speak out loud and there it is, hanging in the middle of the comic strip and he knows there is nothing he can do to take it back.
One movie a while back, one I must admit I did not watch, but someone shared part of the plot with me, illustrated the problem of the tongue quite well. The way the story went was that someone came to the priest to confess a bit of gossip that had gotten out of hand, as pretty much all gossip does. The priest told the confessor to take a down filled pillow, cut it open and let the wind scatter the feathers, and then return. Upon returning the confessor was then told, to be forgiven, now go and retrieve every feather. Such is the trouble of the tongue. As a word to the wise in our own congregation, I must remind you, our congregation is not so big and it certainly is not too difficult to know where the gossip begins.
With the same mouth we curse and we may even bless, yet, James says this should not be so that both curses and blessings coming from the same mouth. A more contemporary way of saying this might be to ask, “Would you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Can we as Christians bless and curse or is this a conflict of confession? Is it ever right, then, for a Christian to utter the words of a curse? The answer is, not of himself. The only curse we may utter is the one given to us by God, for His purposes. To help us to better understand, the rhetorical questions James now asks are asked in such a way that he expects a strong “no” answer. Would you expect, in nature, for a spring to have both fresh and salt water at the same time? No, you would not, because that would not be natural. Can a fig tree bear olives or a vine bear figs. Certainly not, this would be unnatural. A salt spring cannot give fresh water. The mouth is the same way. The mouth is one which either blesses or curses. The implied application that James makes to the tongue is this, that the tongue naturally does what is in one’s heart. If it is in your heart to curse, you will curse and not bless. If it is in your heart to bless, then you will bless and not curse. Again, faith shows itself through a response of works and in this instance these works are works of blessings coming from the heart and spoken through the mouth.
What does this mean? First and foremost James’ words are words of condemnation which is what the law does, it condemns us. We stand condemned because we are sinners living in a sin filled world. We do not do the good that we want to do, but the evil that is before us, that is what we do. Indeed, it is only as we understand just how sinful we are that we can begin to understand just how loving and gracious God truly is. James words this morning, using the illustration of the tongue are intended to show us our sin so that we see our need for our Savior, so we repent and with His help work to be better people. And so as always we get it right when we point not to ourselves, but when we point to Jesus.
What this means is that we are reminded that it is God who is the prime mover. God gives and we are given to. God gives faith through the very means He has given to give us faith, that is through the means of grace, His Word, Holy Baptism, Confession and absolution, and His Holy Supper. God gives faith and He strengthening and keeps us in faith, through those very same means.
God does not do fractions, He gives the whole lot of His gifts and a whole lot more. He gives faith and with faith He gives forgiveness, life and salvation. God does not give us some forgiveness now and perhaps some more later if we are good, no God forgives us all our sins and when we sin some more, He forgives us even more. As a matter of fact, when Jesus died on the cross He paid the price for all our sins, even the ones we have yet to commit. In keeping with James, even those sins our unbridled tongue speak and will speak. Not that this gives us a license to sin, but the good news of the Gospel is what motivates us to confess our sin.
God gives faith, forgiveness and all the gifts and blessings we have and our response is to do the good works which He has prepared in advance for us to do. He gives for us to bless and not curse and yet, we sin and curse and do not bless. And yet again there is confession and forgiveness.
God gives forgiveness, guidance and comfort. Contrary to what some TV preachers might suggest, we cannot be the people God would have us to be. If we could, we would have no need for God. We have been conceived and are born in sin. Every inclination of our hearts is evil all the time. We cannot say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. The good that we want to do we do not do, but the evil that is before us, that is what we do. We are indebted to our Lord and all that we have is and has been given to us by Him. It is His grace, His good gifts and blessings, His work in and through us that are what motivate our response of faith, our desire to be where His gifts are given out as often as they are given out.
God blesses us to be a blessing to others. He has created us to love us, to give to us, and for us to do the good works which He has prepared in advance for us to do. May the Lord continue to stir in you and work in and through you that you might be the people He would have you to be and so that you might speak words of blessing. To Him be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.